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The Psychology of Volume

 
 
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Author: Kevin West
 
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Posted July 29, 2014 by

By Kevin West

I

have noticed a shift that has taken place musically over the past 30 years, which greatly affects us as worshippers—since it affects us as worshipers, it greatly affects us as worship leaders. I can’t speak for every church and every denomination, however I feel confident this affects most churches that have a “contemporary” style of music.

So, let me tell you my observation and then I will try to back it up with some examples. The volume music is played at can have a direct result in how engaged a congregation is in worship.

I’m cringing even as I type that. Volume shouldn’t have anything to do with how engaged we are in worshiping the One who gave His life for us. However, in my experience, for this generation it does.

My Experiences
About 8 years ago my wife and I were visiting a fairly large church (in people and building size). We were singing the songs trying to engage in worship. The worship leader started to lead a song I was pretty familiar with and really loved so I began to sing the song loudly. Just then the worship leader began “making the song his own”—he zigged when I zagged. I ending up singing the wrong notes pretty loud, embarrassing myself. Instantly, I reduced my volume and looked around to see who noticed my wrong notes. It was in that service I realized a few things:

  • I, like so many, get embarrassed when I sound awful in front of people
  • Because the volume in the church was low and everyone could hear me, I began to sing softer
  • Because I’m not the only one who does 1 & 2, the entire congregation was singing softer
  • As a result of singing softer, I was more passive and less engaged

Let me give you another example. I was talking with a friend (who is in his 20s) who recently started attending a new church. He was telling me what he enjoyed about his new church home. One of his comments was, “I love that the music is loud enough that no one can hear me singing.” I found that comment fascinating and began to ponder it in light of my own experiences.

When there is no fear of embarrassment, people tend to sing louder. When people sing louder, in many cases, they become more actively engaged in worship.

I want to be clear that I’m not saying the music has to be loud in order to worship through singing; volume is not the issue. The bigger issue is how this generation is connecting with God. I believe there is something in us that wants to sing with all our might (no matter the volume of the music), and when we are not able to do that, we become more passive as worshippers.

My Theory
What has happened in the last 30 years for this culture shift to take place?

I believe we have become a less musically educated society. My parents’ generation grew up with music in school. Everyone had some, even if minimal, exposure to music and therefore a certain comfortableness with it. In addition, every church had a choir. In choir, people learn how to sing and exercise their vocal muscles. They become more confident with their voice. Music education and choirs can contribute to raising the overall musicality of a congregation. As the musicality is raised, the congregation is not as self-conscious concerning their individual voices.

Another contributing factor is the number of songs a congregation has to learn and on top of that the different arrangements played from one community to another. I love that there was an explosion of new worship music in the 90’s and 2000’s. I love that it’s accessible and there is a wider range of styles within the genre. However, one advantage to singing out of a hymnal was the commonality of the melody and arrangement of the song, which leads to a familiarity for the worshipper to sing out confidently.

My Conclusions
I believe it’s important to change with culture, where it doesn’t contradict sound doctrine. When I was younger, volume didn’t play the same role as it does now. We also did not have the same kind of stage lighting (or any stage lighting) and I didn’t hear a guitar solo in church until I was in high school. But things have changed. And they will change again. And again after that.

I’m a worship leader, I don’t care about volume, lights or guitar solos. Well, OK…I care a little, but my number one priority as a worship leader is to help my congregation engage in worship. If turning the volume up helps them sing with all their hearts, thereby helping them engage in worship, that’s all I really care about.

This article is not intended to be the Bible on this subject. I merely want to continue the discussion of how we are loving each other across generational lines. I recognize there are other and deeper discussions that could be had regarding this topic (and related topics, such as how have performance/concert attributes, that have snuck into to congregational worship, affected the Church). I encourage you to start your own discussions within your community.

In addition, you’ll notice I have not mentioned specifics, such as DB levels. What’s right for one community may not be right for another. Do some research. Test things out. Pray for wisdom. God will help you come to the right conclusion for your congregation.

Kevin West is a creative arts pastor/worship leader in Southern California.  He’s passionate about helping people connect with God, loves his family and really enjoys a good hamburger.  For more of Kevin’s writings or to listen to his music, visit kevinwestmusic.net.  You can also follow him on twitter (@kevindwest).


12 Comments


  1.  
    Russ Tuck

    Doing sound for choirs of all ages, and for children’s musicals (in schools as well as church), I’ve noticed there’s a sweet spot for the accompaniment volume. If the singers on stage can’t hear the accompaniment well, they sing quietly. Singing louder would risk singing off-key or out of rhythm. So when a choir sounds tentative, I ask myself if they can hear the instruments (or CD track) well enough.

    At the other extreme, if the accompaniment is too loud, they can’t hear each other so the blend suffers. And the microphones can’t pick them up separately from the accompaniment, so the accompaniment drowns them out for the audience as well.

    The point is that singers need to blend well with the accompaniment, and they can’t do that if it’s either too soft or too loud. I think this applies equally to congregations. Variety is powerful, of course: both a capella and loud encompassing music that they experience more than sing with.

    But a good blend seems like the key to the big middle space. That’s why I like to recruit musicians, and especially choir members, to help run sound.




  2.  
     
     
     
     
     

    Thank you for posting this topic.
    There are many great responses here.

    I believe that there is always an appropriate time for everything. And its up to us a worship leader to discern how to use volume to our advantage. We shouldnt forget the aspect of volume as we prepare for the worship set.And something you have to discuss with your sound team and musicians

    I personally don’t like it when the music is too loud as sometimes the congregation gets distracted especially if the levels of each instruments aren’t mixed well or if its not being adjusted according to song as different songs have different leading instruments.
    Also particularly with vocalist who do not know how to pull in or away from their microphone when he/she get louder/softer. The sound team can predict when he/she will do that, it suprises people a bit

    As vocalist, we are prone to hearing damage, I would be concerned about this too for the congregation as not everyone are trained musicians or know about how volume can effect hearing.

    As someone has posted about “use of acapella” it is often quite effective. as It helps encourage the congregation to engage. The contrast from loud to quiteness brings a beautiful dynamic to the bracket.

    But as I said before, Use volume to your advantage when you prepare your worship set.
    How would express particular lyrics to God when you speak? loudl and passionate? soft and sweet?
    There is always an appropriateness of volume for every song

    Thank you
    J




  3.  
    Jerry Wilson

    I totally agree with Angela. Volume is a personal, worshipful, healthful, and locational issue. We just always need to remember that we never want to be a stumbling block for someone else when it comes to worshipping the Lord. …. Peace!




  4.  
    Randall
     
     
     
     
     

    Great article Kevin. One thing that can make it more difficult to get the volume from the stage right is “uncontrolled sound sources.” This could be just about any instrument that the sound team cannot control — acoustic drums, acoustic piano or guitar/bass with onstage amplifier.

    If you can’t control one or more of those, the “easiest” fix is to boost everything else to match, but obviously that can take you into decibel ranges beyond what is appropriate. So then the next question is whether your musicians are going to be cooperative when asked to do without amps, play electronic drums, or swap out piano for electronic keyboard. Then you must decide what your response is going to be for the recalcitrant ones, which depends on how serious you are about getting the overall sound correct.




  5.  
    Angela Pendleton

    I’m a former praise and worship singer as well as an public education orchestra teacher. I am worried about the DB level for young children in the services, and most people aren’t educated about hearing loss. I’m extremely sensitive about hearing, and after reading about hearing loss in jazz students (U North Texas Jazz Lab) there needs to be a common ground. Singing loud does not always reflect the highest worshipping experience one can have – especially in my case.

    When I sang, church members brought up the volume level at our service, and when we are on stage we couldn’t hear what the congregation did because of our earbuds that synced certain instruments more than others for us to harmonize. I bring up the volume level because I was on the other side of it, but I understand both sides.

    We all want to bring our praise to God, but safely




  6.  
    Matthew Schurr

    I appreciate what you wrote, as a reminder to consider the purpose behind our volume level. If the house mix is weak, everyone is more apprehensive. The more passive our congregation, the less engagement. I’ve noticed the need to truly pastor the congregation into those moments, when I sing a new song (Tehillah – sing a new song), that I have a planned scriptural explanation to engage the congregation and lead them into that place.

    We all have to come to our own conclusions for our congregations, and thank you for not placing a hard fast rule across the boards. For our church, I recently told our sound tech, “If anyone complains about it being too loud or too soft, simply point to the decibel meter and let them know it’s our standard that we follow.” It removes personal conflicts with crabby parishioners! There’s good, sound reasoning to why we do what we do, thought through with discretion, and yes, even prayer!

    p.s. Kevin, If you’re ever in the Twin Cities, we have the Jucy Lucy…c’mon up and we’ll give you the tour-de-burger! J




  7.  
    Jeff
     
     
     
     
     

    Someone else commented that it has a lot to do with how familiar the congregation is with a song. I agree with that. In our small church (100-150), it also depends A LOT on the lead vocalists. There are times when I just want to hear voices worshipping, singing, so the band backs off. But I’ve found that if the band backs off, the lead vocalists do the same. I have to remind them…no, this is a time to hear vocals, you need to continue to sing out, even though the music is soft. If the lead vocals are singing out, the congregation often tends to do the same. If the lead vocals are shy and not wanting to be heard, the congregation follows that pattern.

    I use to absolutely love all music new, but in the past 3-4 years, have found myself throwing in an old hymn in a worship set. There is nothing liking hearing the congregation singing the chorus of “How Great Thou Art” with only a soft piano or acoustic guitar in the background to keep tempo.




  8.  
    Michael

    Here’s a great article I’ve been circulating concerning the filters/expectations we have about the volume issue. It was really helpful in identifying the “why’s” behind our own beliefs.
    http://www.praisecharts.com/is-it-too-loud-worship-accompaniment-vs-worship-immersion-culture/




  9.  
    Randy

    Thank you for your thoughts. I have discovered that when I go to very large modern churches (that are designed to be acoustically dead) that people don’t sing because they cannot hear anyone else around them sing. In such a situation I believe having the on stage musicians louder may provide some comfort to people who want to sing and not stick out. However, I would prefer to see somewhat acoustically live rooms where the congregation can hear one another. In my church (which happens to be small and rather reverberant) I quite often lead a portion of a song or a whole song a cappella in order to reinforce the idea that it is the congregation that is to be worshipping and singing and the on stage musicians are just there to help them out.
    I have found that if the music is too loud then people cannot hear themselves or others singing or maybe they start to get a sore throat from over singing and so they just stop.
    In my ideal world I would have groups of vocalists strategically placed throughout the congregation helping the congregation from within the congregation.

    I think this is another example of people desperate for community and not willing to do what it takes to have community. (In this case each person needs to risk singing – even songs they don’t prefer – in order to encourage the people around them to sing, and those people need to do likewise.)

    Like you said this is a much bigger topic and these are only a few scattered thoughts.




    •  
      Matt Howard

      The problem with the above first few lines, is that you are assuming acoustical deadness = not singing. I can almost assure you, something larger is at work.




  10.  
    Karen
     
     
     
     
     

    What I’ve found in our church is that the music can be louder if the congregation is singing songs they know, but if the songs are newer and the music is so loud they can’t hear the worship leaders, they are not engaged at all–younger or older. Even if the choir is backing up the worship team, and the songs are newer, but the music is louder, the congregation is not engaged.

    When the congregation knows the song (a hymn or gospel song) the music can be blaring, and they’ll be singing, raising their hands, and be totally engaged.

    When we go to a family reunion of young ones and older ones, we try to do things that include everybody, because we’re a family and we love each other. At church, we’re a family so we should sing songs for the young ones and for the older people. We love each other, and we want to please each other, because we’re God’s family.
    My opinion only.




  11.  
     
     
     
     
     

    Several thoughts…

    1) I think you’re right that choirs, hymnals, and more organized music programs in local congregations do help a congregation become more confident in their own voices.

    2) I’m not sure you’re equation of “singing with all your might” (or, simply, more loudly) actually equates with “degree of participation” by the worshiper. For some songs, singing at full throttle is a great way to participate in the song. For others, it just isn’t. There are quieter and more raucous songs, and within many songs there are normally quieter and more raucous passages. So the question of participation isn’t how loudly one sings, but how well one’s singing matches what the song is doing at any particular point.

    Case in point: “God of Wonders.” The “verse” is more quiet, contemplative, awe-inspiring praise of God (and awe, scripturally, tends to inspire silence more than loud praise). The chorus is much more full out praise, with band and full assembly ascribing worth to God. Then the bridge, like the verse, is more meditative before moving back into a final round of full out praise with the chorus one or more times. If the band (or organ, for that matter) is playing very loud on the quieter parts, not only can’t I hear myself sing (at all!), but it feels forced, artificial, not in keeping with what the text and music are actually doing at that point.

    3) A few years ago Lifeway Music started investigating the phenomenon that increasingly folks weren’t singing in church. And one of the key reasons they identified that was happening was the band was playing and the vocalists were amplified too loud so the congregation could NOT hear themselves or the room singing, and just gave up. This was true across generations. Here’s their findings, and suggestions: http://worshiplife.com/2010/10/28/they_are_not_singing_anymore/

    Overall, I think you’re right that volume matters in leading worship. The question, though, appears to be HOW it matters for different parts of worship, and even within a given song, not whether it is louder or softer per se– regardless of the age of the congregation.





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